CLASS ACTION

When it comes to bedtime, your child may need a push

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 November, 2014, 10:36am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 November, 2014, 10:36am

My seven-year-old son has a lot trouble concentrating in school. His teacher says he is tired and lethargic in class and often yawns. I've tried to get him to sleep earlier, but he is often still awake at 10pm. It is also difficult to get him up in the morning and to school on time.

Research tells us that getting enough sleep is vital for good health and general well-being. Children, in particular, require the right amount of sleep to grow to their full potential and your son still has a lot of growing to do. Although there is no magical number for the hours of sleep needed to function in a rational and productive way, the general recommendation for a seven-year-old child is between 10 and 11 hours a night.

It has also been shown that irregular or late bedtimes can often lead to disagreeable and hyperactive behaviour, social problems and academic difficulties at school. Tired children tend to be very distracted and unfocused in lessons and miss out on important learning opportunities.

If a child is awkward about going to bed at a reasonable time and has poor sleep habits, parents sometimes assume that the child simply doesn't need much sleep. However, the more likely reality is that the child is sleep deprived and therefore not functioning properly. Sleep allows the mind and body to recover from a busy day's activities. During deep sleep the muscles relax and breathing and blood circulation slow down.

It is not surprising that you have difficulty getting your son up in the morning. If he doesn't go to sleep until 10pm he hasn't had the sleep that his body desperately needs. Unfortunately, this situation provokes a negative start to the day which is unlikely to improve.

You need to take charge of the situation and avoid allowing your son to dictate his own bedtime. Children will often take advantage if they feel there is leeway to do so. Help him develop a good sleep habit, most importantly setting an appropriate bedtime and not deviating from it. Going to bed at the same time and rising at the same time will allow his body clock to build up a regular routine. You would be wise to put him to bed by 8pm. In time, he will come to realise that the expectation is that he goes to sleep and he won't feel that he's missing out on anything.

Aim for quiet, calm activities at bedtime. This is an excellent time to read a story together and to talk about the day. Mindfulness activities could also help your son to relax and feel calm. Make sure he is sleeping in a dark and quiet environment at a comfortable temperature. It is best to remove gadgets and computers from the bedroom and also avoid giving him large meals before bedtime.

Studies have shown that even if a child has an unhealthy sleep routine the effects of this can be reversed if there is a positive change in sleep habits, meaning that related problems can cease to exist. So it is definitely worth being persistent and firm in helping your son change his sleep pattern as soon as possible.

Try to think of reasons why your son may not be tired at bedtime. Does he get enough physical exercise during the day? Increasing this could wear him out and sort out the issue immediately. Boys in particular need a great deal of exercise. Could his brain be wound up at bedtime due to lively or stimulating TV programmes, video games or noisy activities with a sibling? Is he eating a healthy diet?

If your efforts fail, a visit to a paediatrician may be helpful to rule out any other issues.

Also, if your son's behaviour does not change at school, even with more sleep, you may need to explore with the teacher the possibility of other underlying attention problems.

The key for children is to have a regular bedtime routine where the expectations are clear and firmly enforced. This should markedly improve the quality of their waking hours and ability to absorb and enjoy everything around them. Hopefully in future, your son can start the day positively and grow to become a happy and productive individual.

Julie McGuire teaches at a local primary school